Image for Afghanistan: the supposed threat to national security

Many people say they don’t know why we are in Afghanistan, meaning they want the troops back. But others are unclear about what the official reasons are, because different concerns have been put and the emphasis has varied. This contributes to a media focus on the controversy itself, on what Ministers and public figures say about the war. If the official case was more widely understood, there might be more scrutiny of the evidence it relies on.

Although it was clear that with bi-partisan support it would not be an election issue, in mid July Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defence Minister John Faulkner gave major speeches to clarify the Government’s war policy. In near identical terms each invoked national security, stressing three aims: to deny sanctuary to terrorists, to ensure stability, and to support the US alliance. But the main concern was clearly the first viz., the terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda, and in support each cited its links with the Bali bombings.

Senator Faulkner in his speech described this risk as ‘absolutely critical’; it would, in his view, open up a ‘training ground and operations base’ for global terrorism. The UK and the US unequivocally rest the case for war on the same threat to national security. UK Prime Minister David Cameron made this clear in a House of Commons speech on June 15:

‘Let me address the first question that people are asking. Why are we in Afghanistan? I can answer in two words: national security. Our forces are in Afghanistan to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the UK or on our allies.’

President Obama, in a speech to the US Corps of Cadets on December 1, 2009 (reaffirmed in March 2010), said:

‘Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.’

It is easy to forget this is the official reason for intervention. But the argument is that President Karzai will lose this resurgent civil war if the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops are withdrawn before the Taliban are defeated, or at least denied victory. In which case they will invite or allow al Qaeda to return. Stability is part of this security argument; Taliban violence, if unchecked, will open the door to al Qaeda. Reconstruction and democracy are valid secondary aims, but if it were not for the risk to our own security we would leave them to sort out their own affairs, as we did prior to 9:11. Perhaps no official would be quite so blunt, but this is the policy.

A majority of Australians, as in the UK and most other countries, want the troops out now. There is concern at the loss of lives, an increasing sense of failure, and grave doubts about the rationale. Perhaps the most forthright criticism is that of former lieutenant colonel and senior intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie, who exposed the ‘cherry picking’ of intelligence reports on Iraq; he believes the national security argument, like the Iraq WMD claims, is based on lies.

How plausible is the official case? While any terrorist haven will add to the risk, the question is whether the danger justifies the cost in lives and resources. The answer is more complex; it would depend not just on the risk of al Qaeda returning, but on how much this adds to the threat it now poses, how serious this is in relation to other terrorist threats, and the extent to which global terrorism requires a fixed base. The fact that there is room to disagree on all these matters, and that so much rests on conjecture, helps explain public skepticism.

Past moves by President Karzai to reach a political settlement, publicly rebuffed by the Taliban, are a reminder that for all its cruelty and excesses, this is a nationalist movement which won power over regional warlords in a civil war. But this unresolved war is distinct from the global threat posed by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and there is no reason to assume that the Taliban would, given the crushing defeat of their regime by the US led invasion, risk further attacks, such as aerial bombing campaigns, by giving it safe haven.

There is, in fact, no evidence that the Taliban knew of the 9:11 attack, which their foreign minister condemned at the time and, despite the anti-US rhetoric, no evidence that they would take action to support al Qaeda’s global aims. After 9:11, and facing a US ultimatum, they offered to hand bin Laden over to Pakistan for trial by an international tribunal and, when this failed, to try him if the US would provide evidence. These offers were reported in the UK Guardian on 14 and 17 October, 2001 but not, apparently, in the US media.

There was also independent testimony to the 9:11 Commission from a CIA intermediary, an Afghan-born US businessman, that unconditional offers to deliver bin Laden to the US and close down al Qaeda were open until late 2001. But the belief in a close alliance, however valid, is not difficult to understand, given their past relationship, a shared hostility to US aims, and the fact that both use extremist versions of Islam to justify inhumane policies.

Nevertheless experts say the Taliban draws support from Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Western Pakistan, with a combined population of 40 million. By contrast, CIA head Leon Panetta has recently estimated 50 to 100 al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the US Centre for Counterterrorism asserts that ‘somewhat more than 300’ are in Pakistan. If, as this suggests, al Qaeda would be far more of a liability than an asset to insurgent aims, it is hard to see why a Taliban victory, or a negotiated peace settlement, would increase the risk of terrorist attacks in the West.

But even if the Taliban were defeated and ISAF withdrew it is unlikely that the Afghan army, any more than Pakistani forces, could seal the borders against their return. That would require a continuing US presence long after insurgents gave up arms and returned to their homes. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that al Qaeda will remain a threat whether the Taliban win or lose.

This threat must, however, be judged on its merits. The US State Department lists 45 foreign terrorist groups around the world which pose a risk to national security; the UN lists 99 ‘entities, groups and undertakings’ associated with al Qaeda alone (the Taliban, perhaps because its violence is part of a civil war, is not yet on either list). As Andrew Wilkie pointed out in this journal, the Islamic terrorist threat ‘morphed years ago into a global network, independent of any one leader or safe haven’.

Finally, al Qaeda’s stated aim to use terror to force Western nations from the Middle East does not need a highly trained militia with a fixed territorial base; it can be pursued by small groups operating from rented premises in any Western city, with limited training and a huge choice of targets - any crowded street will do. Even failed attempts, like the ‘Christmas Day’ and Times Square attacks, serve terrorist aims. Like the home-grown violence of the Oklahoma bomber, this calls for good intelligence and vigilant police; it has little to do with a factional war in Afghanistan. The complex Mumbai raid attributed to Lashkar-e-Toiba in Pakistan required training areas and modern weapons, but many experts now see al Qaeda’s role as one of inspiring, and/or helping to organize and finance terrorism.

While not conclusive, even this brief account suggests how much is taken for granted and why a review of policy is needed. But perhaps the best reason to question the official case for war is that it seems to be implicitly rejected by the US itself. Under President Bush the US strongly opposed talks with Taliban leaders (Condoleeza Rice reportedly told President Karzai to ‘shut up’ about reconciliation) because of the al Qaeda link. But there is now compelling evidence that this policy has changed, with President Obama wanting Karzai to hold talks as soon as it is politically feasible.

Although much is uncertain the new policy, described in the UK Guardian as a ‘change of mindset’, means endorsing President Karzai’s call for talks with insurgent chiefs, including leader Mullah Omar. At the time of writing Karzai has reportedly announced that such talks will begin soon. The Taliban want direct talks with the US, but this is unlikely; the al Qaeda threat is now so much an article of faith in the public mind that US reconciliation with the Taliban will be seen as a major defeat in the global war on terror.

The other argument for Australian intervention is the value of the ‘US alliance’. But this argument, apart from its moral problems, and the fact that international law prohibits discretionary wars fought for national interests, is tied to the US war policy, and will vanish once it is clear that the US has no objection to talks. The main effect of the alliance claim, sadly, has been to inhibit scrutiny of the substantive case for war viz. that it is necessary to protect Australia from global terrorism.

Max Atkinson is a former teacher at the University of Tasmania Law School with interests in legal theory and and international law.


That is not the community view. More than half the Australian population believes the troops should be brought home. And now that Oakeshott is a potential kingmaker, his perspective on all matters is suddenly very important. What he thinks about Afghanistan isn’t likely to sway who he supports to form government, but it does help to illustrate that views about the war are much broader than those offered by our main political leaders.

With the promise of a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan one of the unexpected outcomes of Australia’s political stalemate, we are likely to hear more.

Oakeshott set out by asking the fair question: ‘‘After nine years, what exactly is our mission in Afghanistan?’’ That this even needs to be asked is the best example of the failure by both major parties to carry public support for the deployment. Neither has bothered to engage in a sustained effort to justify and explain the mission.

Labor adopted the conflict as the ‘‘good war’’ - in contrast to the debacle in Iraq - to prove it wasn’t wimpy on defence matters. Then, aside from a spurt or two, it offered only a few heavily scripted lines to explain the conflict, such as being in for the ‘‘long haul’’ but not with a ‘‘blank cheque’‘.

The Coalition rumbled about doing more - sending tanks one of the more wacky ideas privately tossed about - but mostly held to the consensus line. In the absence of a compelling rationale to explain the 21 Australians killed and nearly 150 wounded, no wonder the public mood has turned sour.

But when considering Oakeshott’s question about what our mission entails, don’t be tempted to confuse this with asking what we need to do to win. Winning in Afghanistan implies something entirely different - establishing stable democracy, ensuring respect for women’s rights and the rule of law, and getting rid of the drug trade, things the West used to talk about.

Those goals are gone. That’s the reason Gillard ducks any questions on whether it’s a ‘‘winnable’’ war. She prefers a different formula - that Australia has a clear and defined mission and ‘‘progress’’ is being made. In this sense, a win in Afghanistan is better understood as finding the right way for the West to get out. Our mission now is to leave.

Oakeshott had some thoughts on how to extract ourselves. ‘‘Like it or not, the Taliban as a people are part of the Afghan population,’’ he wrote. ‘‘The most difficult ‘pill’ for us all to swallow after nine years in Afghanistan is that no viable political solution can fail to include the Taliban.’‘

The call to negotiate with the Taliban is increasingly heard. Read more of Daniel Flitton in The Age, HERE


The Onion: A more cynical view ... : Afghan Mineral Deposits Could Completely Revolutionize Nation’s System Of Corruption

Friday, ABC Online: Pastor scraps plans to burn Koran; claims deal to move Mosque

First published: 2010-09-07 02:32 AM